Dominic Fike reconciles with his own fame in AltPress issue #403 cover story
Before the world really knew who Dominic Fike was, he was the subject of documentaries. You can find them on YouTube, spread among the detritus of music videos, live performances, year-old demos that fall off the platform before they are reuploaded by meticulous fans. Caught in snatched vignettes, there’s a whole portfolio of his thoughts and processes, hinting at the ambition that bubbles beneath an introverted surface. The view counts on his music seem incongruous with his personal stature, the kind of unprecedented virality that fascinated public consciousness long before COVID-19 redefined what it meant to be infectious. If “overnight genre-bending streaming sensation” was the mood of the late 2010s, that mood looked a lot like Dominic Fike.
In a particular clip from 2020, he sits on the edge of a pool as his friends from BROCKHAMPTON chat offscreen, encouraging him to ride out the anxiety that is causing his whole body to shake. He breathes shallowly, head bobbing in and out of his own hands. “It’s how I feel most of the time,” he admits through his fingers. “Ever since all this shit happened, I just feel so tense all of the time…” He pauses again, shakes his head, a dog trying to free its ears of water. “But it’s not because I’m about to get onstage — it’s because of that box.”
He gestures directly at the camera, frustrated with the pressure of being perceived on film because, as he puts it, “that stuff stays forever.” He could just as well be pointing at himself, his record label, his ever-growing audience. The roller coaster wheels of his career are firmly in motion, but he’s already straining against the safety bar, wondering how soon he might be able to get off.
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk][/caption]
Fast forward to 2022, and a lot has changed. Fike connects AP’s call before his PR has a chance to provide formal introductions and seems almost startled to see his face reflected back at him, eyes widening for a split second before he resteels himself and settles into the frame. It’s early morning in L.A., and despite being only two days fresh from the red-carpet premiere of Euphoria — the HBO smash hit of which he is the latest star — he appears well rested, mentioning his plans to hit the gym and an audition after our talk, almost as if reminding himself that he has the option to choose. Having taken a year off from music, the 26-year-old has been making dedicated steps to become more flexible in himself, to embrace the benefits of leaving his comfort zone.
“I’ve never done anything like a premiere before, but it was dope,” he says. “It was scaled down because of COVID, and all the other actors were psyched — like, ‘Oh, my God, thank God we don’t have to do a crazy real one.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeeeeeah, imagine. Fuck that!’ But I was actually kind of bummed out. I had pulled up in a full Balenciaga Kanye outfit — I had the boots and shit, a puffer and glasses, but everyone else was wearing suits, so I went to my car and got changed immediately.” Across social media, you can spot his green hair peeking out from behind his castmates, bobbing out for his close-ups. “It was good! It wasn’t scary.”
Born in Naples, Florida, Fike’s childhood could most easily be described as tumultuous. In and out of probations, his parents weren’t always present, and so he and his brother found themselves in the care of their local community. “My mom is the best. You know, she really tried, when she was there,” he explains. “She didn’t want us to go to Child Protective Services or whatever, so it would just be whoever was up for it at the time, I guess.” Sometimes he’d stay with his school friends, sleeping over for a fortnight at a time.
“Their moms would be OK with it. They knew the situation. I had a kind of infamous family in Naples because they were always in jail. My name is pretty famous in my hometown. Now it’s my first name, too, but before it was just my last name, known for all the bad shit.”
Though not as wealthy as his peers, he mostly felt included, invited to the “fancy house parties” and hanging out with the “rich white kids” after school. When his social life got “too poppin’,” his parents moved him in an attempt to make him focus on his grades, but he found himself dipping in and out of education regardless, his interest waning with his mood. “Sometimes I would duck off, and sometimes I would be more present. It’s like how it is now in my career,” he says. “I duck off for a year, and then we’ll come back. I need the respite — I don’t know how Harry Styles does it.”
Depending on which school he was in, his African-American and Filipino heritage was either a reason to fit in or one to stand out. “In Naples High School, I was cool because I had tan skin, but at another high school, everyone was hella racist, so I moved around a lot. I never really had a spot. It works out when you’re older because you’re not boring, you know? But when you’re young, it’s only white Disney Princesses, white action heroes… there’s really no place for people like us. What’s the ‘in’ term for us now? ‘People of color?’” He shakes his head in bemusement. “I don’t fucking know.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk][/caption]It would be easy for Fike to dwell on his childhood with resentment, but he’s keen to stress the benefits of growing up in such wide musical and cultural influence. He recalls early years of flipping through his mom’s CD wallet (“lots of these superbad light-skinned ladies in black leather pants and shit; a Lil’ Kim one where the CD was just a picture of her butt. Crazy!”) and days spent in front of MTV, keeping himself busy while his mom cleaned. “That was when I realized music videos were really cool. Gwen Stefani’s ‘Sweet Escape’; I remember watching that for the first time and being like, ‘This is hard.’” Through his mom’s partner, he discovered the Beatles and began to learn guitar; when she remarried, Fike’s new Trinidadian stepfather would play him Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, adding new squares to his patchworked musical education.
The MTV years had also introduced him to Jesse McCartney, a floppy-fringed boybander with a penchant for earnest ballads. “He was so cool to me. I don’t know why. I was a weirdo! But I was singing along, and I was like, ‘Mom, me and Jesse McCartney sound exactly the same right now.’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, sure, all right…’ But I was insistent. I think from then I was like, ‘I could totally do that.’ I listened to so much music — ‘I could write a song at this point. I have so many pieces of songs in my head.’”
As he got older, he began to do just that. He formed a collective, LAME BOYZ ENT (the initials form the tattoo that sits below his hairline), and in high school, his first solo experiment “Not A Word” found its way to YouTube, an attempt to merge his love of “wordy rappers” such as Eminem and Earl Sweatshirt with more of a “Floridian flair.” “It was mad weird and incompatible, but I put it out, and that was what I [was] trying to go for. Eventually, I started to get my own thing.”
In his early 20s, Fike ran into his own legal trouble. Attempting to defend his brother in an altercation, he was charged with the battery of a police officer and placed on home arrest. Unable to collaborate with Capi, his favored producer, he had to take everything quite literally in-house, finding his own way around bass and drums with something akin to intuition. “I found that what I’d heard, I could just play it myself, and it would sound the same. ‘3 Nights’ was one of those songs; I did the hook and the first verse, went to work and put it on the speakers overhead. I was playing it, and I was [like], ‘Yo, this shit is hard.’ No one was really like, ‘This is a fucking slapper,’ but my co-workers were like, ‘This is really good.’”
Having received the approval of various friends, Fike decided to take a chance. “I went back to the studio. I was on house arrest at this point, [and] I wasn’t really supposed to be there — I got super drunk, went in the shower, wrote this last verse and was like, ‘We’ve got to get to the studio right now.’ I just left the crib and recorded it with Capi. It was literally composed of me being in the booth for maybe 10 minutes at a time; three 10-minute segments.”
What happened next is the stuff of Fike folklore. With its irresistible Latin beat, “3 Nights” went impossibly viral, and Fike — in jail at this point due to the violation of his house arrest — stayed updated via phone calls from friends, feverishly relaying the multiplying thousands.
“I just feel like people love to dance, you know? When something has that beat” — he claps and stomps out its familiar riff — “it’s just one of those things that transcends language. I feel like it’s just a recipe for virality.” His enthusiasm is palpable, and he catches himself in it, letting out a self-deprecating laugh. “Fucking virality!”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk][/caption]
[AltPress Issue #403.1][/caption]The word might conjure up some unpleasant memories, but it undeniably marks the moment where Fike’s life shifted gears. With the success of “3 Nights” pricking the ears of label execs, he became the subject of an intense bidding war, Columbia Records allegedly offering an estimated $4 million. The idea of “selling out” was never in contention; with his mother in need of legal assistance over serious drug charges, he was determined to pursue the opportunity that would best help her out.
“Really, the missing link was money,” he says. “I was hesitant maybe on which label to go with because I’d met them all at the same time, and all of them are obviously great, but that was probably my only concern. I knew I needed some money, like really fast, so if anything, it fueled that need to sign something.” When the label asked him to choose Don’t Forget About Me’s EP re-release date, he selected Oct. 16: the date set to drive his mom back to jail, an emblem of his commitment to her care.
On the subject of the EP itself, he remains proud of the way it shaped up. “I loved that period of time. I listen to it now and think, ‘Wow, I really had no pressures or outside views.’ I want to go back to that kind of freedom. It’s been really cool to take this time off and act because now going back, it feels like I can explore again. Sometimes you do so much in music that you hit a wall, and it’s very hard to see around unless you take a break. There’s that classic phrase; you got your whole life to make your first album, and then a year to make your second album. That’s a grim-ass sentiment.”
As with anybody who finds themselves in possession of such a world-dominating debut (at time of writing, the major-label re-release of “3 Nights” has racked up over 71 million views on YouTube), Fike found himself facing some major suspicion, and indeed derision. With a Florida upbringing, criminal record and a face that would be considered Instagram-handsome with or without tattoos, it was all too easy to siphon Fike off as a flash-in-the-pan SoundCloud rapper, to accuse him of purposefully gaming genre-fluidity for algorithmic success. When his debut album, What Could Possibly Go Wrong, dropped in 2020, blending lo-fi R&B, rapid-fire rap and beachy indie guitars, reviews were widely mixed, seemingly misunderstanding both his sincerity and personal context.
“That’s what they talked about the whole time; like, ‘another genreless rapper,’” he says, rolling his eyes and elongating the phrase in an impression of a humorless critic. “I was like, ‘Fuck, guys. What do you want me to do?’”
Though a dose of cynicism is perhaps understandable in the seemingly relentless conveyor belt of social media-led “next big things” and genre-hoppers, Fike felt berated for demonstrating the very thing he’d always been proud of: the eclectic, untapped potential of his youth. To be able to craft a record like his in such a complex mental timespan is an achievement in itself, but when we proffer the thought to Fike, he typically downplays it, shifting the topic just far enough away to be more comfortable.
“I mean, I wish I was like anything else. I’m trying to be some sort of athlete by the time I’m 30, like a snowboarder. Florida’s not great for snow, so that’s why it’d be really dope. Have you seen the movie Surf’s Up? There’s this character in it, Chicken Joe. There’s no waves where he’s from, and he’s a chicken when everyone else is a penguin. That’s basically what I’m modeling my career after.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk][/caption]When Fike was a kid, his stepdad would often take him to the movies. They’d buy tickets for one screening, and when the film ended, they’d sneak into another, and another, whiling away an entire day. Home wasn’t always the greatest place to be, so the cinema was perfect; a suspension of time and disbelief, with great music and dim lighting. To this day, Fike favors adventure movies; goofy stories with overambitious CGI where the heroes always come out good in the end.
He had forgotten how cinema made him feel until very recently. He’d spent 2021 really working on himself; going to the gym, going to auditions, getting himself sober. He’d escaped himself for a little while by stepping inside the screen, getting invested in his role as Euphoria’s Elliot.
Things were going well, but last week, he had a bad day; an anxious one. His car had been valeted at a nearby L.A. hotel, but his card was lacking the $50 required to pay the fee. “I was so angry for some reason because I hate getting my card declined,” he explains. “It used to happen with my mom as a kid and all this shit, whatever. And I was like, ‘Damn, where do I go?’ I had this ex-girlfriend; whenever she was stressed out, she would take me to this same place with her, and we would talk about shit. I was asking myself, ‘Do I even have that on my own?’”
Back in his car, the answer rushed back to him: “I went to the movie theater by myself, and it was amazing. I watched Licorice Pizza, and it made me so happy.” Through something as simple as film, he was transported back into the sensation of feeling lowercase, where the only thing anyone was asking of Dominic Fike was his silence and attention. This time around, he paid for the ticket.
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk][/caption]
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk][/caption]Being famous has never come super easily to Fike, and yet he can’t seem to help himself from doing the things that tend to put a person there. A staunch collaborator, he insists that he has no interest in ever returning to a LAME BOYZ ENT-style setup but has still racked up an impressive portfolio with everyone from Remi Wolf and slowthai to Halsey and Sir Paul McCartney, who hand-selected him to reinterpret “The Kiss Of Venus” from his McCartney III Imagined LP.
“I can usually tell when people aren’t a good fit easier than when they are,” he says, contemplating the science of a perfect pairing. “There are certain people that I just can’t live with; I’ve had sessions with pop producers where they’ll try to rewrite your lyrics to fit what they want. I’ll rattle off an idea that I have, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s tight, but what if we change it to like, ‘Girl, you’re fine.’’ You know? I’ll be like, ‘Jesus fucking Christ, dude.’ Sometimes I’ll just sit there and won’t say anything for hours. It’s mad. I don’t like it when people interrupt me.”
Though the news of their indefinite hiatus breaks just days after our call, BROCKHAMPTON have clearly been a steadying force in his life, a group who can empathize with both the nature of rapid success and the negotiation of controversy-weathering in the public eye. Both based out in L.A., Fike sees “Ian” — Kevin Abstract — almost daily, having met way back when backstage at Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw.
“I was mad overwhelmed just to be there, you know? So much so that when Ian came and tried to talk to me, he thought I didn’t like him or something,” Fike remembers. “They go through a lot of shit on the internet, but they’re all just amazing people, super genuine and very talented.” Fike has frequently been speculated as a potential member of the group, but he insists it was never in the cards. “I never really planned to tether myself to anybody; I always wanted to be my own thing.”
[Acting] reminds you that everyone’s small, and nothing’s really as significant as it feels in the moment
— DOMINIC FIKE
Nonetheless, being a lone wolf can take its toll. The dread of public scrutiny fuels much of What Could Possibly Go Wrong’s lyrical content; on “Cancel Me,” he actively begs to be taken out by online gossip, to have his responsibilities lifted so he can go back to his regular life. Having actively chosen to detach himself in the past year, he’s been weaning himself off social media, ridding himself of the urge to self-defend. “It honestly doesn’t matter anymore,” he says, visibly cheered by the recognition that he actually means it. “There’s all types of shit out there, but I don’t care. I don’t lose sleep anymore. I’m just so disconnected from it.”
This epiphany, it seems, really did come from acting. “Literally every day, you’re on set with, like, 40 people, and they’re looking at you and giving you your flowers and telling you how good you did or how bad you did right there. It’s real life, you know what I mean? It reminds you that you’re small. Which I need to be reminded of all the time; that everyone’s small and nothing’s really as significant as it feels in the moment.”
This sense of insignificance might feel demoralizing to some, but at this point in his life, it’s probably the healthiest realization that Fike could have. For much of his label courtship and subsequent rise, he was the center of an industry universe; the guest of honor at opulent dinners, the recipient of huge wads of label cash that overcatered to his needs. “It really was the whole thing,” he says. “I was staying in Beverly Hills cribs, being taken to fucking crazy-ass $1,000 dinners. I was eating oysters and shit for the first time. They had me trying wagyu; I’m from Florida. What the fuck is this?! Now that’s all I eat, which is the crazy part. I’d be like, ‘Yeah man, I don’t have any cash to stay in California,’ and they’d just hand you five grand.”
Expectedly, it was all a bit of a headfuck — the sort of thing that takes real sense of self not to get swept away with. “You do. You totally do get taken away with it,” he nods. “I think for a while, I went on this like... I was crazy. You know? I was doing whatever I wanted. I had good friends at the time, but they weren’t really in the position; they didn’t really know me that well to tell me what to do.
My best things, the things that people will come up to me on the street and mention, are things that
I wrote when I was sober
— DOMINIC FIKE
"I was making all sorts of moves, a lot of them wrong, doing a lot of shit with money and things like that," he continues. "But it all worked itself out. I think if you just keep your head down and work as hard as you can, it works out. We made the album, and that brought everyone together. Now everyone’s in the right position on my team, and people know who I am and can help me when I’m… acting like an idiot.”
What exactly Fike means by “acting like an idiot” is perhaps more of his business than ours, but having committed to sobriety, he’s realized that he doesn’t have to lose the particular alchemy that made his earliest work so intriguing. “Even though that second verse on ‘3 Nights’ was recorded pretty drunk — and a lot of songs before that— I find that my best things, the things that people will come up to me on the street and mention, those are things that I wrote when I was sober,” he says. “The workflow is a lot faster. You work better with other people. It’s just easy to get addicted to things out here. When everything is given to you, like we were talking about.”
[AltPress Issue #403.2][/caption]Was there a specific moment that sparked the change for him? “There were so many moments. Not the greatest moments, obviously. You don’t reach sobriety through a happy road. But a lot more people than you’d think in music are actually sober; it’s probably one in four of us that get all fucked up and have to go to rehab. I guess I was really surprised to find that there were so many resources and people that are willing to aid you and support you, in such an impossible climate. I was really surprised to see that a lot of these people weren’t out here partying and doing all this shit and were still turning their careers into what they’re supposed to be.” He shifts a little uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah. Anyway.”
It’s difficult to imagine a greater test of one’s substance-free resolve than appearing on a show like Euphoria. Fike had always thought that he might have the makings of a decent actor, but when he got his face tattoos, he figured it was “out the window,” struggling not to feel intimidated by his relatively late entry to the game. “When you see incredible people like Zendaya, acting since she was like 10, you’re like, ‘Man, that ship kind of sailed for me.’ You know?”
Far from the ship sailing, Euphoria offers the perfect fit for someone of Fike’s life experience, giving him the context with which to sensitively depict Elliot, a musician and drug user who creates something of a potential wedge in the love story of Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer). Definitively NSFW, Euphoria’s depiction of high school life and youth addiction is at times fun but more often deeply harrowing, the sort of thing that could easily rake up painful memories.
[Euphoria’s Elliot] hasn’t really figured anything out. At some point, it’s gonna come to this kind of hard end where he has to decide what to do. Hardship, probably, is where he’s headed
“It was rough at times,” Fike admits. “HBO had hired this sober coach to be on set to talk to us after, and even before I got the part, Sam [Levinson, the show’s creator] sat me down and was like, ‘What do we need to do to ensure that this doesn’t become a problem for you?’ They’re very supportive. They’re so great about the safety of the actors, hiring consent coaches for all the sex scenes, or whatever you may call it. I mean, there are quite a few sex scenes…”
At the time of our conversation, only one episode of season 2 has aired, but it’s clear that Fike is a natural, reflecting thoughtfully on the trajectory of his character. “This kid hasn’t really figured anything out; he’s just floating, maybe making money on the side from music. At some point, it’s gonna come to this kind of hard end where he has to decide what to do. Hardship, probably, is where he’s headed. I mean, it is Euphoria! This is a stressful season, and it does not let up, either. It’s not one of those watch-it-before-you-go-to-bed shows…”
In terms of Fike’s own pre-bedtime routine, his swelling follower count is certainly testing his resolve to look less at the internet. “The night of the premiere, my shit was going crazy. I was trending on Apple Music with no new music, and I felt so bad!” he says, laughing. “Sooner or later, though, new music has to come. I mean, it really has to be before the show ends.” He pauses, does some calculations. “Like within eight weeks from now? Seven or eight weeks?”
This casual commitment to new music on such an imminent deadline comes almost as a shock, but by now, it’s roughly what we should have come to expect from Fike; when he’s on, he’s on, and the idea of spending 2022 back in the studio clearly appeals. He’ll soon be done with auditions and looks forward to going “somewhere far, far away” to focus on his second record, ideas of which are already taking shape. “I want to talk more about my childhood. I want to bring it back and focus on what brought me here and all these crazy stories I have. There’s a lot of shit that shaped me, and I think a lot of people could probably benefit from hearing about that.”
Like so many of us, the pandemic has given Fike the time and space to find peace with his own backstory, to recognize the power that his own unique experience has. For someone who has so often been pigeonholed as a rapper, he prefers to see himself only as himself; a creative with a great number of ideas, ready to take him in whatever direction suits him at the time. Ask him if he considers himself “alternative,” and he isn’t sure.
“It changes so frequently,” he says. “I’m not really sure what it means anymore. At first, I thought it was just like popular music with guitar, you know? But I’m just gonna continue to make the music that I like, whether it be reggaeton or fucking Florida rap music. I’m going to continue to do that. I’m not sure what they’ll label me as in the future — I’m sure they’ll figure it out.”
[Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk][/caption]
If he continues at his current rate, press and fans alike will have a whole lot of labels to choose from. Musician, actor, Chicken snowboarder… dare we say it, filmmaker?
“Yeah, well, we’re kinda... without saying too much, I guess we’re already exploring that,” he admits. Sweet, AP exclaims; your own movie? “That’s all I’m supposed to say. Man, I’m going to get people really pissed off!”
He lowers his gaze from the camera, starts strolling down a corridor, but there’s a small grin on his face, the joy of a secret that he hopes his fans will hear about soon. He’s been on our call longer than he was expecting; six months ago, he says, there is no way he would have been able to talk for more than a few minutes without the nerves overtaking him. “I feel OK, now, you know. I feel a little bit better now, which is a testament to all the work I’ve done — I just want to be in a place where I’m happy with myself.
“Taking care of my family; that’s the most important thing to me. Making sure my family has a house and food, and they’re all in good schools,” he says. “And then comes me, I guess. Hopefully I’ll be at a place where, mentally, I’m OK, where I can have normal conversations with people. I still feel like I’m a little fragmented from the whole rise and everything, but I’m trying to pull it back together with therapy and some sobriety in the mix and leaning on friends. That’s a pretty cliche answer, but to be honest, being happy is all that matters. You can be as rich as you want to be and just be fucking miserable.”
He exhales, smiles, breaking into a little awkward dance that seems designed to free himself from any last ebbs of tension before he can set back about his day. “So yeah. I think I’m making progress.”